Even as Atlantis prepared to gear down for the final U.S. space shuttle landing today, the 135-mission program leaves in its contrails a phenomenon as blistering as heat shields during re-entry: Sales of shuttle memorabilia are over the moon.
Collectors have gravitated toward space relics since the first animal slipped the surly bonds of Earth in 1947 — just a year after the baby boom generation was launched. And the first animals weren’t monkeys, as some folks walking the planet back then might strain to recall, but rather, fruit flies that were sent aloft to determine the effects of radiation in the heavens, lacking the protection of the planet’s atmosphere.
Dogs and monkeys then pretty much hogged the space-flight limelight until the Soviets won the race into the great beyond on April 12, 1961, with their first manned Sputnik, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard. The first U.S. flight took place just weeks later, on May 5, when Alan Shepard took a suborbital 15-minute jaunt, as detailed on the website of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Since then, NASA’s program has featured not only other Mercuries, but also Geminis and Apollos, and women have joined men aboard the gravity-defying missions. Other countries not only joined the Soviet-U.S. space race but also eventually sent bunkmates to set up housekeeping in the international space station.
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Atlantis undocked from that space station Tuesday as its astronauts moved into two days of maneuvering for its landing early this morning at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. It landed shortly before sunrise Eastern time.
The shuttle program’s end is expected to ramp up collectors’ penchant to hoard memorabilia of everything from astronaut autographs to rocks from the moon, USA Today reports
Indeed, collectors flocked to the website of Goldberg's Auctions in Los Angeles to secure historical items, the national daily reports.
"It's the end of an era," USA Today quotes CEO Ira Goldberg as saying. "These items will become historical treasure pieces."
Goldberg estimated that 1,500 bidders from as far away as Hong Kong participated in the site’s auction, generating more traffic than any other space auction. Tokens from the shuttle's first and last missions drew the heaviest attention, Goldberg said.
The checklist for a launch pad director who strapped the astronauts in for the 1986 Challenger flight in which the craft exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts, sold for $1,947, said Michael Orenstein, Goldberg's space memorabilia director.
"You have to get absorbed in the history. This was held in the hand of a man who did something you will never do," Orenstein says. "He was there. This is first-person material. It's fascinating when you stop to think about it."
USA Today chronicles top sellers at a recent Goldberg auction, including:
$45,000: Remnants from the construction of the American flag that was planted on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. The scraps never left Earth.
$15,000: Solid bronze Collier Trophy awarded in 1962 to astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton of the Mercury program.
$9,600: Texas state flag flown on Apollo 11 in 1969 attached to a printed certificate signed by astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins.
$8,850: Space Capsule color lithograph from Gemini Program in 1965 signed by Gus Grissom, Frank Borman, Charles Conrad, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, James Lovell, John Young, Edward White, Wally Schirra, Robert Gordon, and Dave Scott.
During the past five years, one of 10,000 U.S. flags flown on the first space shuttle flight sold for about $500, collector Robert Pearlman, founder of CollectSPACE.com, told USA today. Such a flag now would bring more than $1,000 now, Pearlman said.
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